John Taylor was a talented wide receiver during the San Francisco 49ers' Super Bowl era but discovered late in his career it was more difficult to get open after Hall of Famer Jerry Rice retired.
Oklahoma sophomore Kenny Stills is going through a similar transition after the Sooners lost NCAA all-time receptions leader Ryan Broyles to a career-ending knee injury late in the season.
With Broyles no longer attracting double coverage, defenses can focus on Stills, who set OU freshman receiving records a year ago and has supplied numerous big plays his two seasons.
“Kenny just needs to play consistently,” said offensive coordinator Josh Heupel. “He's capable of doing that. He just needs to stay healthy and maximize his opportunities.”
With Broyles sidelined, OU quarterback Landry Jones' No. 1 target against Iowa in the Insight Bowl will be Stills, who has 119 career receptions for 1,604 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Stills might face more double-team coverage without Jaz Reynolds, who emerged as a big-play weapon. Reynolds will sit out Friday night's game with a bruised kidney.
“It's definitely been different without Ryan,” Stills said. “We're still getting used to it. But seeing these type of coverages now instead of next year will help me a lot.”
With Broyles sidelined Stills' production was expected to increase since he presumably would have more opportunities.
But Stills' production has actually slipped.
With Broyles, Stills was averaging 87.3 receiving yards a game with eight touchdowns.
The past three games, Stills has averaged 69.3 yards a game with zero touchdowns.
“I still feel I have a lot of room to improve,” Stills said. “With Ryan going down like he did unexpectedly I wanted to step up more than I did... Against Baylor I remember that drop my first time being in the slot on a critical third down.”
Running back isn't the only position where OU's depth will be tested against Iowa. The Sooners are so thin at receiver that deep snapper James Winchester could play some receiver. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound senior from Washington High has played receiver on the Sooners' scout team.
“Working with Landry an extra 10 to 15 days, being on the same page, will be huge for us,” Stills said. “In that last game (against Oklahoma State), you could tell we weren't on the same page. Getting that chemistry with Landry will be huge.”
The Insight Bowl is an opportunity to lay a foundation for spring drills. Stills, Reynolds and Trey Franks — all sophomores — and freshman Kameel Jackson are projected to be OU's top receivers next season.
“The young guys have to keep pushing to get better, play at a level for us to be successful,” Heupel said. “That's why you grind it out day in and day out.”
Franks will have a larger role Friday night. Like Stills, Franks was an impact player as a freshman. Franks, though, was a non-factor much of the season (two catches over an eight-game stretch) before re-emerging after Broyles' injury.
Senior Dejuan Miller was inserted back into the starting lineup after Broyles' was sidelined. But after he dropped two passes against Oklahoma State, Miller was replaced by Jackson, who has impressed coaches dating back to fall camp.
Jackson could start the Insight Bowl. He's had two drops but has nine receptions in limited action.
“He's made some competitive plays,” Heupel said. “In the Oklahoma State game he made a great play on the sidelines. He just needs to be consistent and practice in a better manner.”
Stills, though, is the receiver who can be OU's difference maker next season.
How did Stills grade himself his sophomore year?
“Average,” Stills said. “I want to be the guy Ryan was, an automatic player who automatically made catches all the time. That's who I'm looking to be, not really Ryan, but be the guy who catches the ball all the time... I want to really step up in this bowl game.”